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17 October 2023

Party Conference Season 2023: What does it all mean?

Conference season is coming to a close and, as predicted, scapegoating took centre stage. Small boat crossings and asylum seekers remained a key talking point this year, along with a worrying trend which saw Government ministers ramp up the demonisation of marginalised groups.

There have been a lot of developments around migration since the last conference season, with the Illegal Migration Act passed earlier this year and the Rwanda plan currently being heard in the Supreme Court. So, we were holding our breath to see if the Home Secretary could come out with an even more divisive speech than last year. It’s safe to say, our fears were confirmed. 

The Tories focused on deterrence and ‘hurricanes’

In her speech, the Home Secretary continued to whip up hysteria by warning of the “hurricane” of migration heading towards the UK, as well as repeating the need to update international legal frameworks around migration and concerns around migrants’ ‘integration.’ This is likely to result in increasing hostility to new arrivals in the name of deterrence, including increased detention and more rapid deportation, particularly as the ‘Illegal Migration’ Act has criminalised entry to the UK via irregular routes.

The Foreign Secretary mentioned working with British diplomats to limit irregular migration from the countries they are stationed in and closely collaborating with other governments where people-smuggling gangs are supposedly based. This coincides with agreements that came out of the European Political Community summit in Granada the same week. This pledged greater cooperation on smuggling, including updating legal frameworks, and developing closer ties with partner countries to stop border crossings and support voluntary and enforced returns.

Alignment on criminal gangs for Labour

The picture coming out of the Labour Party conference wasn’t much more positive. Labour have also been focusing on small boats, but from a different angle. Labour Leader, Keir Starmer, kicked off the conference by stating the Party’s opposition to the Rwanda scheme, even if the ongoing Supreme Court case finds it to be legal. This is largely on the point of cost and ineffectiveness at stopping “criminal gangs” leading small boat Channel crossings, rather than any humane argument or emphasis on why people are making this dangerous crossing. The Leader of the Opposition has instead proposed working with France and other EU allies, which could mean cross-party support for the agreements in Spain.

Overall, while there is a difference in how to approach this, both major parties support hardening borders, particularly through inter-continental networks and to stop small boat crossings. Yet, neither party has advocated opening safe routes for other nationalities beyond Ukraine and Hongkongers to do so, instead favouring further criminalisation and clamp downs. It is disappointing to see how this rhetoric has become so normalised amongst the two major political parties. As the General Election approaches and borders across Europe and the West continue to tighten, it is more important than ever to challenge the normalisation of this rhetoric and narrative.